The Neighbors is funnier than it has any right to be
More For Our Consideration
For the past month or so, ABC has been trying to sell the public on a mostly inaccurate concept: When The Neighbors began, critics hated it; now that it’s been going for a season or so, critics like it a lot more! While the ad the network is running does collect quotes from savage reviews of the show’s first few episodes, when it comes time to pop in comments from kinder reviews of what the show has become, the ad switches to a largely different set of publications. By and large, the people who’ve thought The Neighbors has gotten better are the people who thought it showed promise in the first place. If there are critics out there who think the show started very poorly, then got wildly better, they haven’t really surfaced, outside of those who acknowledge that most comedies improve the longer they make it in their first season, because all comedies eventually understand what their funniest cards are, then figure out the most effective ways to play them.
This is supposed to be the part where I say that I’ve watched all of The Neighbors, getting caught up over the course of the last week or so, and I’ve come to realize it’s really as good as its greatest champions would have you believe. Unfortunately, that’s not really true. I’ll qualify this by saying that I was one of those people who found the pilot largely laugh-free, and now I’m someone who finds a handful of solid chuckles in any given episode. If ABC wants to run an ad that says, “This critic hated the pilot, but now he thinks The Neighbors is more or less a harmless way to kill a half-hour every week!” it’s more than welcome, but I doubt that’s going to drive a lot of eyeballs.
The reason The Neighbors was able to raise from a D pilot to a show that fairly regularly scores in the B range is largely due to two things, one that was present in the pilot and one that largely wasn’t. The first is a fantastic cast of actors who have all been well chosen for their roles, and who are all capable of making an otherwise weak joke land. The second is just good craftsmanship. At this point the networks have figured out a base level of competence for their single-camera sitcoms that essentially mirrors what they were doing with the multi-camera form in the ’90s. Yeah, nobody’s going to look back at Caroline In The City as a masterwork of the genre, but it was decent. A similar thing seems to happen with most single-camera comedies on the air now. I strongly dislike much of what lies at the core of NBC’s Go On, but it’s reliably well-made, well-cast, and well-written. Give a show like this enough time, and it will inevitably start to figure some things out.
This goes doubly for The Neighbors, which started with savage reviews, largely driven by the fact that the show’s premise seems to have been ported in from the ’80s: A family moves into a new planned community, only to learn that all of their neighbors are aliens. Now, granted, there have been a number of alien-based sitcoms over the years, including four genuine hits in My Favorite Martian, Mork & Mindy, ALF, and 3rd Rock From The Sun. All of these shows had their moments, but the time for this sort of gimmick sitcom was supposed to be safely in the past. Now, some of the early reviews seemed to suggest, was not the time for a show this broad and hacky, this dedicated to such a ridiculous premise. Now was the age of more realistic, grounded sitcoms, set in worlds recognizable to viewers as slightly skewed versions of the realities they already dealt with. It was the age of New Girl and Parks And Recreation and The Middle, not the age of shows where laughs were to be had from alpaca reaction shots.
To be fair, I very likely might have written one of those negative reviews had I been tasked with reviewing the show’s pilot. The pilot had its fair share of faults, not least of which was the dearth of laughs and a bizarre finale that twisted itself in knots to justify why the show’s central family—the Weavers—could possibly want to live in a subdivision with beings from another planet, no matter how well-meaning they might seem. (One of the continually funny jokes about the first season has been the show slowly revealing that said aliens—the Zabvronians—don’t necessarily have humanity’s best interests at heart, but are probably too lazy and incompetent to ever actually accomplish anything, to say nothing of their constant distraction by our weird Earthling ways.) Yet the pilot also seemed to set up the show to take the material in the least interesting direction possible: Earthlings do things like this, but Zabvronians do things like this, sprinkled with a liberal dash of “Don’t white, well-off Americans care about some pretty stupid shit?”
What’s interesting about The Neighbors—and what might tip me into a more full endorsement if the show gets time to expand its world over a few more seasons—is that it hasn’t been afraid to go balls-out weird. Creator Dan Fogelman isn’t a stupid writer, and he and his staff have slowly expanded the series’ idea of what sorts of stories it can tell. The show still feels trapped between two worlds at times, with the weird alien satire elements clashing uneasily with the seemingly network-mandated bursts of “heart” that are supposed to close out every episode. (The aliens are learning to feel their feelings, just like Mork from Ork once did.) Take, for instance, this opening to the show’s generally solid Christmas episode, which uses a timeworn TV storytelling conceit by starting in the middle of a dramatic highpoint, then jumping back to show how it all came to be. But the dramatic high point here is so bizarre and has so many odd elements—a pig! People in luau costumes!—that it provokes chuckles just by the incongruity of the images. Imagine leaving on the TV after the relatively grounded laughs of The Middle and ending up seeing this.
I mentioned earlier that networks have gotten really good at making single-camera sitcoms, so there was, to some degree, an expectation that The Neighbors would get at least a little better than its pilot. But most of those other shows—Go On, again—find a certain type of joke that the actors are good at delivering and then do their best to have the scripts hit that relatively narrow target over and over again. The Neighbors has its fair share of problems in this regard, and it leans too heavily on obvious punchlines that wouldn’t have been out of place on Growing Pains. But it’s also willing to do a bunch of different kinds of jokes, particularly when it comes to its alien characters, and it possesses a refreshing, go-for-broke sensibility that plays off a cast where any of the players is willing to look at least a little bit ridiculous. It’s also one of the only comedies on TV that’s more or less willing to do completely dialogue-free sequences that are sometimes the funniest things in any given episode, given the cast’s ability to simply look and act weird and have it mostly play. These sequences make the show stand out compared to many of its chattier cousins.
Even when the scripts aren’t working—which is sadly still too frequent—the show’s cast underpins this ridiculousness with solid comedic performances. Talk to comedy showrunners or writers, and they’ll tell you again and again that the most important thing to get right in the pilot process is finding the right cast. A good ensemble can elevate weak material through its chemistry; a weak cast can torpedo strong material. (For an excellent example of how strong writers can be bolstered by a cast that’s just as strong, go back and watch those first 10 episodes of Community again, though I suspect you don’t need the excuse.) What’s fascinating about The Neighbors is how well cast it is at every level, and how unknown most of these people were before the show popped up. By far the most famous person here is Jami Gertz, hardly a household name, and she’s probably playing the show’s weakest character, Debbie Weaver, The Neighbors’ human female lead and a fairly tired riff on an alpha mom. As her husband, Marty, Lenny Venito similarly struggles, particularly when stranded in relatively sedate stories about how tough it can be to be a man and/or father in this modern age.
The show’s secret weapon—and the element that props up Gertz and Venito in even their weakest stories—is that it can toss all of the characters into the middle of a storyline with the show’s main alien couple, Larry Bird and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, played by Simon Templeman and Toks Olagundoye. (The joke about the aliens all having the names of famous athletes started out irritating, crossed over into weirdly funny, and has become unexpectedly endearing the more times they call each other by their full names.) The aliens allow the show to break free of its usual sitcom story constraints, and they also give the show a chance to go as ridiculous as it wants to at the drop of a hat. In the early going, Templeman seemed like he might be the show’s breakout character, and he’s continued to be a lot of fun, but the revelation here has been Olagundoye, who takes Jackie and makes her a character of spritely precision. She’s not entirely sure what to do with this human form, but she’s going to have fun doing it, and Olagundoye nails every moment, as with this early episode, in which she mistakes human female interaction for a Bravo reality series and ruins Debbie’s night out by behaving like a Real Housewife. It’s a silly conceit, but Olagundoye finds every bit of laughter in it, right down to a hilariously overwrought Jersey accent.
ABC has quietly built up an image as a network for family sitcoms, but one of the reasons it’s been so successful is just how good it’s been at casting funny child actors to play in those series. Impressively, The Neighbors might have the strongest child cast of any of these shows, actor for actor, ranging from the gleefully acerbic Clara Mamet down to the young, highly weird Ian Patrick. Few shows have this strong of a younger cast, and even fewer shows know how to effectively use said cast members. (Observe how Modern Family sometimes struggles with its younger players.) That The Neighbors can make something as tired as a teenage will-they/won’t-they occasionally funny is a testament to the strength of its younger cast.
The show’s gradually evolved away from its earlier, more satirical bent, but it’s done so in a way that’s moved the satire to the background, where it stands almost in relief to the more family-oriented storylines. The Bird-Kersee family’s experience is that of just about any immigrant family coming to a new, strange land where people have so much but seem to complain about every little thing, and, to its credit, the show doesn’t try to make too much of this. Similarly, the mixed-race makeup of the Bird-Kersee family (two white people, a black woman, and an Asian teenager) only becomes a story point when it needs to, or when tangential characters wonder just how this family could even genetically exist. (The Bird-Kersees explanation for how they came to be in the Thanksgiving episode was another early highlight.)
I don’t want to praise The Neighbors too much. It’s a show that still has a fair distance to travel to become essential TV. Early in my watch, I told my wife that if I were the kind of person who loved both The Middle and Modern Family and was predisposed to watch whatever was between them, then The Neighbors would more than suffice, though it’s not as good as Suburgatory, last year’s occupier of that slot. The problem is that TV no longer works in the way that used to prop up the kinda-good Caroline In The Citys of the world. With DVRs and streaming, there’s no compelling reason to watch The Neighbors, outside of enjoying the performances or wanting to see if the show’s slow, steady march toward its own betterment continues. But I find myself weirdly hopeful for a second season all the same, because this is the kind of show that could really take off after a hiatus during which the writers could consider what did and didn’t work about season one. Every single-camera sitcom might bring itself to a watchable state, but The Neighbors got there after starting out abysmally. Saying it’s now a modestly enjoyable show that brings a few chuckles every week may sound like damning with faint praise, but, well, look where it started out.